Phelps, Schmitt trade laughs, support, Olympic trials victories
OMAHA, Neb. -- Michael Phelps was desperate for a morning off. So Wednesday night he scratched the 100-meter freestyle preliminaries and slept in. After practice Thursday morning he and North Baltimore Aquatics teammate Allison Schmitt returned to their hotel, ordered room service, watched "Act of Valor" and sat around telling jokes and laughing.
"It was a very relaxing day," Phelps said.
And it led to a very rewarding night. With his stroke feeling better than it has all meet, Phelps cruised to a win in the 200 butterfly in a time of 1:53.65, 1.47 seconds ahead of runner-up Tyler Clary, to earn his fourth Olympic berth in that event.
Just nine minutes earlier the 22-year-old Schmitt had an even more dominant win in the women's 200 freestyle, hitting the wall in 1:54.40, 2.39 seconds ahead of runner-up Missy Franklin. Her time beat the American record of 1:54.96 she set at the world championships in Rome in 2009, when she and all her competitors were wearing the now-banned rubberized suits.
"It was special to do it on home soil but also in a quote-unquote non-cheater suit," she said. Afterward Phelps found her in the cool-down pool, gave her a high-five and said, "Way to go, Big Al!"
Providing mutual support, motivation and comic relief, Phelps and Schmitt have been something of a secret weapon for each other all year. Ask Phelps how he got through practices this past year after he struggled to find motivation in the wake of the Beijing Olympics, and he always bring up "Schmitty," a former training partner at Club Wolverine in Michigan who took a year off from her psychology studies at Georgia to train with Phelps, Chris Brady and Kevin Webster in North Baltimore's tiny post-grad training group.
"Allison makes training a lot easier," Phelps said. "She's awesome. You could be in the worst mood in the world, and she'll somehow put a smile on your face or tell a joke or do something crazy or funny. She is definitely someone good to have around. I'm thankful to be able to train with her."
Their coach, Bob Bowman, said the presence of Schmitt, who counts laughing as one of her favorite activities and is notorious for her repertoire of silly jokes, has been a big factor in Phelps' eagerness -- or at least willingness -- to attend practice.
"She makes practice fun, which is hard to do a lot of the time," Bowman said. "No matter what I give her, she can make it fun. That has really lightened the mood for him and made him want to come to practice."
In turn Phelps helped Schmitt direct her boundless energy and perfect her technique. Those improvements, along with much greater physical strength, led to consistently outstanding results this year. If Phelps sees a flaw in a flip turn or a stroke, "the swimming genius," as Schmitt calls him, will point it out.
"I think one of the reasons she's more consistent now is because he has taught her how to manage her energy," Bowman said. "She loves to be social, she loves to interact and I think that drains her to a point. I think in some of the big meets she had burned up her energy before she could use it in the race. Now she's learning to manage that and that has really helped her."
"Michael has been a major part of my success, inside the pool and outside the pool," said Schmitt, a native of Canton, Mich. "We've gotten really close this past year. None of us are from Baltimore except for Michael, so we stuck together and became our own little family."
In that family the 6-foot-1 Schmitt has played the little sister to three big brothers who target her for a lot of teasing.
"I get picked on a lot, but I know they all have my back," she said. "It has been a lot of fun."
Schmitt's win in the 200 free, along with her convincing victory in the 400 free on Monday, gives her three events to contest in London so far -- she is the likely anchor of 4x200 free relay -- and she has yet to swim the 100 free, in which she has the top time for an American this year (53.94).
Although Schmitt's time in the 200 free was a career best, Bowman thinks she'll have to improve to win a medal in London.
"I don't think you saw what she can really do tonight," he said. "If she's pushed toward the end she'll go hard. She just sort of finished evenly."
If Schmitt needs advice on how to get her hand to the wall first against an international field, "the swimming genius" will no doubt be standing by to help.